UK inquiry criticises ‘deep failures’ in Kabul withdrawal

A scathing report demands the resignation of the Foreign Office’s top civil servant

British and Canadian soldiers stand guard near a canal as Afghans wait outside Kabul airport on August 22, 2021, hoping to flee the country after the Taliban takeover. AFP
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British members of Parliament are demanding the resignation of the Foreign Office’s top civil servant after Afghan allies and UK soldiers were “utterly let down by deep failures of leadership” during the evacuation from Kabul.

An inquiry by the cross-party foreign affairs committee has called for Sir Philip Barton to consider his position over a “determination to avoid unearthing the facts”.

A scathing report published on Tuesday says the then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Mr Barton’s failures to return from holiday as Kabul fell last year marked a “fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership”.

Leaders at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office were told to be “ashamed” that civil servants had to risk their careers by blowing the whistle to unearth the “appalling mismanagement of the crisis” as the Taliban swept to power.

The MPs also said they were yet to hear a “plausible alternative explanation” to Prime Minister Boris Johnson approving the controversial evacuation of the Nowzad animal shelter charity.

The committee said the withdrawal was a “disaster” and a “betrayal” of British allies that will damage the UK’s interest for years to come.

Ministers were accused of having a “total absence of a plan” for Afghans who supported the British mission, despite knowing for 18 months that the evacuations may be necessary if the US withdrew its troops.

The hasty efforts to select people to be flown out was “poorly devised, managed and staffed”, with a lack of clarity causing “confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue”.

“They, and the many civil servants and soldiers working hard on the evacuation, were utterly let down by deep failures of leadership in government,” the committee said.

The Foreign Office was accused of giving “intentionally evasive, and often deliberately misleading” responses to the committee’s investigations.

Mr Barton “displayed a worrying lack of knowledge of the department he leads” and a determination to avoid unearthing the facts, the MPs said.

Mr Raab became Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary after the crisis, but the committee singled out Mr Barton for a failure to record the department’s decisions.

“This would be a serious failure at any time, but during the withdrawal from Afghanistan may have led to the loss of life,” the MPs concluded.

“The committee has lost confidence in the permanent undersecretary, who should consider his position.”

The committee's Conservative chairman, Tom Tugendhat, said: “The UK’s part in this tragedy exposes a lack of seriousness in achieving co-ordination, a lack of clear decision-making, a lack of leadership and a lack of accountability.

“While junior officials demonstrated courage and integrity, chaotic and arbitrary decision-making runs through this inquiry.

“Sadly, it may have cost many people the chance to leave Afghanistan, putting lives in danger.”

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said the government had “badly let down Britain’s reputation”, adding that the people responsible “for this calamity should be held accountable”.

“This utterly damning report highlights the scale of the government’s incompetence, laziness and mishandling that likely cost lives and has badly damaged the UK’s international standing,” the Labour MP said.

“It shows how rotten this government is that after skipping the Afghanistan evacuation to sip cocktails on a beach, the Prime Minister rewarded Dominic Raab with the title of Deputy Prime Minister.”

The government defended staff who worked “tirelessly” to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan in a fortnight.

“This was the biggest UK mission of its kind in generations and followed months of intensive planning and collaboration between UK government departments,” a spokesman said.

“We carried out a thorough review to learn lessons from our withdrawal from Afghanistan and have drawn on many of the findings in our response to the conflict in Ukraine, including introducing new systems for managing correspondence and increasing senior oversight of our operational and diplomatic response.”

Updated: May 23, 2022, 11:01 PM